Hawthornucopia Roundtable Discussion

For some further insight into – and information about – Metropolitan Playhouse’s upcoming Hawthornucopia festival, I thought I would turn to some of my colleagues who are also doing shows in it. Playwrights Trav S.D. and Tony Pennino, and actors Chris Harcum and Iracel Rivero, were kind enough to convene a cyber-roundtable with me to discuss each of their respective shows, and Hawthorne and the festival in general. Here’s what they had to say: 

Okay, panel: tell us a little bit about which show you’re doing and what it’s about.

Trav: Merry Mount is an adaptation of “The May-Pole of Merry Mount”, which can be found in Twice Told Tales. It is based on a true incident, wherein an acting governor of colonial Massachusetts took it upon himself to crush another slice of English culture (besides Puritanism) which had crossed the Atlantic in those early 17-century years – the vestigal paganism that had been retained when Engalnd was first Christianized in Medieval times. In a nearby town, not far from the Puritan plantations, Anglican folks dance around a Maypole, drink and otherwise “sin”. Not to be tolerated in such proximity to the “City on a Hill”.

Tony: The name of the piece is Misty Phantoms, which is a term taken from one of Hawthorne’s texts. It is how he referred to the Native Americans/Indians. He believed that they would soon vanish from the face of the earth and leave nothing behind as monuments to their existence. My piece takes place in the 1840’s on what was then the western frontier. It concerns Evelyn, a young American woman who encounters two brothers from the Winnebago Tribe. Their encounter eventually leads to tragic results. In that way, my piece in a small way mirrors but for the most part serves as a counterpoint to the Hawthorne’s “The Dunston Family”.

Chris: The Scarlet Whale by Dan Evans. Hawthorne waits with Herman Melville at Walden Pond for Thoreau for a meeting of the minds. Bounty hunters come through looking for a slave on the Underground Railroad.

Iracel: I’m a part of House of Celestial Experiments by Jeremy X. Halpern and Irving Gregory. It is a movement piece that is being described as a theatrical chamber concert of Hawthorne text.

For the writers: how did you decide which story to adapt? And how faithful have you remained to your source material?

Trav: I’d long wanted to do a play on this theme. For ages my idea had been to wed The Bacchae to the diaries of Michael Wiiglesworth, a rather fanatical preacher and Harvard theologian. But I’d known the Merry Mount story for a good long while too – it was an obvious choice for me. Now I think I may have gotten it out of my system. The play is about 50% Hawthorne, 50% me, the biggest deviation being an ironic coda Hawthorne couldn’t have dreamt of without a crystal ball.

Tony: Usually, I do a straight and traditional adaptation as I did last year for Twainathon. This year, I tried something a little different. This one-act isn’t so much an adaptation as a response to Hawthorne. The writer was very ambivalent about the Native American. In some cases, he seems to find them to be a noble people but a doomed one. At other times, though, they come off as quite quite savage. So though we touch on “The Dunston Family,” “Rappucini’s Daughter,” “Main-Street,” and, most especially, “Young Goodman Brown,” the audience should consider this play as more of a dialogue with Hawthorne than a straight adaptation of his work.

For the actors: tell us a little bit about the part you’re playing and how it’s going so far.

Chris: It’s going well. Festival situations force you to work quickly. Coming in right after the holidays was a bit of a mind-bender. Dan’s script feels like it is a bit influenced by Beckett and Pinter. I wish I had more time to research but it’s good for me to trust my instincts and pray for creativity. Basically ask “What would Johnny Depp do?” then find my own way.

Iracel: I’m a part of an ensemble of nine that play an old woman, a servant, and a devilish boy, exchanging roles in multiple variations of a scene. It’s been really fun learning the original “choreography”, as it were, and injecting the variants. We’ve also recorded text direct from several Hawthorne manuscripts. I translated and recorded the 19th century text in Spanish! You’ll have to see how that plays into the scenes… too fun.

How is this project different from some of the others you’ve worked on recently, if at all?

Trav: In a way, it’s nearly identical (in theme) to my last play at Metropolitan, which was set in Victorian New York. Most of my work examines the dichotomy between authoritarianism and the limits of freedom, and most of it either has a historical setting, or is otherwise set in some time and place outside the ordinary. So as far as my work goes, it’s right in the mainstream!

Tony: This project is different in that I am not simply adapting material from one medium to another. I think of it as more of a conversation. And conversations like this are tricky. Obviously, I have great respect for Hawthorne. He’s one of the seminal figures in American literature. But he doesn’t get it right all of the time. So that is what I am trying to address here.

Chris: I worked with Dan and LuLu two years ago as Edgar Allen Poe. They are two of my favorite people. I hope I am still going like they are when I’m that age. LuLu does a lot great solo performance. They really support and love each other.  Recently I’ve been auditioning for commercials and casting people, which takes a chunk of one’s faith in humanity. This is a seven-man cast. All men and we don’t get naked or make puppets with our privates. Just a good play.

Iracel: There are a couple of recent projects I think of that work as a diving off point for this one: Macbeth Without Words for it’s movement and World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed for it’s recorded text.  However, House of Celestial Experiments differs entirely in that the previous projects had a story to tell whereas House… deals more with process and allows for “experiments” in the technique without the concern for one specific story.

Are there any challenges or advantages that any of you face working on a period piece like this?

Trav: Only advantages. I adore this kind of language. I’m an extremist in that department. On Christmas Eve, I went to mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (high mass, two hours long) and found myself getting angry that they were no longer using the King James version of The Bible. If I could do so without getting arrested, I’d speak in antique language every moment of every day.

Tony: I think it’s a great advantage to play in something that is so ingrained into the American mythos.

Chris: I love working different styles and periods. It lets me trot out all my grad school training no one lets you use until your working for one the major theatre companies. I was a high school intern for North Carolina Shakespeare when I got the bug. I am trying to keep the text sounding like something I would actually say how I would really say it. It also makes me glad people still read books.

Iracel: It’s hard to say, since the work is based on period material, but the end product is incredibly contemporary and, dare I say it, avant-garde. So the challenges or advantages for me don’t come from the period material.

Did you ever have to read The Scarlet Letter – or any other Hawthorne – in school?

Trav: Well, “have to” would be inaccurate. I don’t remember The Scarlet Letter being assigned but “Young Goodman Brown” definitely was. But I’ve read The Scarlet Letter a couple of times by choice, and have enjoyed a couple of film versions, as well. You have to realize that these are “my people”. My mother’s ancestors came here in the 1630s…I relate to the writing of Hawthorne as Americans of other lineages might relate to Saul Bellow, Gay Talese, or Amy Tan. Strange as it may seem.

Tony: Yep.

Chris: So shortly after I caught the acting bug, we had to do projects for The Scarlet Letter in class. I was fed up with kids in high school so I decided to do something crazy. I wrote a monologue as Hester Prynne before she goes to be executed. I dressed up like her and played it straight. I remember feeling the room wanting to be let off the hook and I wouldn’t do it. This was before To Wong Foo…so it was a shock. I guess my work goes between the classical and going solo like that and giving the unexpected (when it goes well).

Iracel: Of course!

What’s up next for each of you after this?

Trav: 2008 is shaping up to be a big year. Looking at a full production of my play Family of Man at Theater for the New City, And How! Theatre Company is developing my play Jasper Jaxon, and I have a bill of two one-acts going up in London.

Tony: I’m working on an adaptation – surprise, surprise – of Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker at Metropolitan. And we are setting some of it to music. It’s going to be lot’s of fun. You should come check it out.

Chris: I’m putting up a new solo in The FRIGID Festival called American Badass (or 12 Characters in Search of a National Identity). It’s about figuring out who we are in messed up world with a government playing outside the rules.

Iracel: I’m currently in rehearsals for Night Flyer, a piece that will be part of Dixon Place’s “Page to Stage” series on January 28th. It is a poem by S.M. Dunlap that I will be performing along with two gorgeous dancers. Immediately after that is the premiere of Aaron Baker’s 3800 Elizabeth, a sitcom for the stage that includes myself, and the wonderful Michael Criscuolo and Peter Handy. This will take place every Sunday evening at The Battle Ranch for seven weeks starting February 3rd.


Well, that seems like an appropriate enough note to end on (and, no: I did not put Iracel up to giving me such a nice plug). My thanks to Trav, Tony, Chris, and Iracel for their participation. I’ll have more with Chris about his next show, American Badass, next month – as well as an interview with Aaron Baker, the writer-director of 3800 Elizabeth. Stay tuned.


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